FOOTBALL is not just all about Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The essence of the game is not represented by £200 a week non-league strikers or £10 to watch step three games or, more extremely, the £60 you might shell-out to sit at the Emirates. It is not entirely about replica shirts, overpriced merchandise, badly-behaved footballers and managers with huge egos.
If you want to search for the football equivalent of the source of the Nile, it is in grassroots football.
Amateur football is what they used to call the game at non-league level. Then, in the mid-1970s, somebody had the idea to abolish the FA Amateur Cup and make small-town football clubs “semi-pro”. The slippery slope had been constructed. Mammon, to some extent, moved into the dressing rooms.
The amateur game lived on, its flag-bearers organisations like the Amateur Football Alliance, whose logo, “AFA” makes you wonder if you’re suddenly in Buenos Aires. But the AFA is a very English institution, hanging onto Corinthian ideals and the joy of playing football for the game’s sake.
Sometimes, when you follow football week-in, week-out, there are times when you experience something that warms the heart and restores your belief in the game as more than the corporatisation that is defacing the sport. For me, attending the AFA Senior Cup final on April 9, 2016, was one of those moments.
We all have our favourite team and players, and football, at the highest level, can be a marvellous spectacle, but we would be kidding ourselves if we did not admit to finding some elements of the modern game unpalatable: the inflated wages, the high ticket prices, the misdemeanours of players and managers, fan violence and corporate corruption. When you come across a section of the sport that still believes in sportsmanship, good conduct, pay-to-play footballers and earnest individuals administering the game, it is a joy to behold.
The AFA Senior Cup has been in existence since 1907-08 when the Corinthians donated a magnificent trophy to the Alliance. The Casuals were the first winners and the last two years have seen Old Wilsonians, one of the many “Old Boys” clubs that play in the competition, lift the trophy.
This year’s final was played at Old Wilsonians sports ground in Hayes, Kent. I was greeted at the gate by Old Wilsonians’ chairman, who turned out to be Richard Smart who used to play for Woking and Kingstonian.
Inside the clubhouse, the AFA Senior Cup had pride of place on the bar. The AFA officials were milling around, pressing flesh and welcoming people to the event. Mike Brown, the AFA’s Chief Executive, who invited me to the final, and Geoff Salmon, a committee member who looks after publicising the AFA, spoke with enthusiasm about the ethos of the AFA and its clubs. We all bemoaned the loss of the corporate sports ground – there were once many in the area – and got all nostalgic for the days when City of London banks would field 17 or 18 teams every weekend in amateur football competitions. It was very clear that people like Brown and Salmon, along with the AFA’s current President, David Dunn, have a passion for the game at this level.
The AFA were expecting a few hundred people to turn up, and just before kick-off, the two sets of supporters started to make themselves heard. West Wickham play very close to Old Wilsonians, while Old Garchonians, a club formed in memory of Freddie Garcha, are from North London. Both clubs play in the first division of the Southern Amateur League. West Wickham, before kick-off, were third in the table, while “OGs” were ninth, with games in hand.
The teams came out as the weather looked to be turning for the worse, West Wickham in Inter Milan-style blue and black and OGs in gold shirts and black shorts. Both teams had player-managers in their line-up, Adam Freeman for West Wickham and Tom Lytton for OGs.
The game started well, with both teams showing they could play football. I admitted to be surprised by the standard. Geoff Salmon told me that the Southern Amateur League has some very good players, some of whom could move up to a higher level, but the SAL suited them and their life-styles.
I was impressed by West Wickham’s Freeman, who looked an experienced and wily defender, and their orange-booted Jamie James and his shoot-on-sight approach. But it was OGs who had the first decent chance when Felix Murray forced West Wickham goalkeeper Mark Owlett into a fine save. Murray had to leave the field later on when he injured his shoulder. Mikey Ward, who according to the match programme, is keen on horseracing, looked something of a thoroughbred himself and he was involved in much of OGs’ good work.
In the 31st minute, however, West Wickham took the lead. James’ shot was parried by Nyong and Joe Walby sent the rebound into the net. An opportunist goal if ever there was one and slightly against the run of play.
Walby scored again in the 53rd minute, receiving the ball on the far side, running forward and shooting low wide of Nyong.
From that point, you couldn’t see OGs getting back into the game, although they did have something of a flourish in the closing stages. Danny Brennan spurned an open goal and also sent a low cross into the area which eluded two gold shirts. Owlett’s goal remained intact and West Wickham were good value for a 2-0 win. OGs gave everything, though.
The presentation, with both teams showing respect for each other, was another throwback to a more gentle age. Goalscorer Walby was named man of the match and there was the usual demonstration of thanks for the hosts, the officials and other people who had made the day possible. There were handshakes all round among the teams.
And so that was that. It had been a richly enjoyable experience and I made a vague promise to return next year to the final. “It’s all about the players at this level,” said Geoff Salmon. “Playing the game”. I noted: no diving, no bad language (well, perhaps one or two choice words) and mostly, I had seen two teams who wanted to play open football. And, more telling, this game was far better and more entertaining than many non-league games I have attended over the past year or two…
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